Historian Charles van Onselen has slammed “arrogant and poorly briefed nationalists” for the neglect and wrongful commemoration of the death of Mozambican miners who perished in a rail accident 70 years ago in 1949.
The commemoration is scheduled to take place at Emgwenya (previously Waterval Boven) on November 16, 2019, under the auspices of the Mpumalanga Department of Sport, Culture and Recreation.
And, according to Van Onselen, not only is the provincial government commemorating the incident on the wrong day, it also has the number of deaths wrong and has excluded the memory of the dead white train driver.
The department is commemorating the deaths of 63 mineworkers who died on November 16, 1949.
But according to Van Onselen, whose recently published book The Night Trains investigates the role of Mozambican mineworkers on the Witwatersrand, 62 mineworkers died on November 15, 1949.
According to a departmental briefing document, the commemoration at one of two remembrance sites will be attended by numerous political dignitaries from South Africa and Mozambique and will include a wreath-laying ceremony, as well as a reception for guests.
The two sites – one a mass grave where deceased miners were buried and the other the site where the train derailed en route from Johannesburg to Mozambique – are however severely neglected and have nearly been destroyed by vandals.
At the mass grave, the marble panel with the names of the deceased came loose from the plinth, fell to the floor and was shattered.
Both sites are also overgrown with weeds and bush, and only received a facelift before the annual commemoration.
Van Onselen believes commemoration events like these have been hijacked by politicians with no regard for historical accuracy or honesty about events and those who were involved.
And he is particularly scathing about the national and provincial government’s lack of research to determine the real facts of the incident.
He says government efforts to preserve “heritage” will always fail.
“It is opportunistically embraced by ignorant and/or semi-literate nationalists who are unable or unwilling to commission or undertake the necessary in-depth historical research that might back efforts focused on the potential of tourism.”
The accident happened on a treacherous railway track outside of Emgwenya (then Waterval Boven) when the train taking miners back to Mozambique from the Witwatersrand derailed, killing 63 men.
The miners were part of the migrant labour system which provided cheap labour to South Africa’s mining industry during the boom years in the early part of last century.
According to Van Onselen, returning miners were often physically broken and psychologically scarred after being discarded by the big mining companies on the Rand. The Waterval Boven monument therefore carries enormous significance, which makes the authorities’ neglect shameful, he says.
“Wateval Boven is no historical backwater. It is located at the midpoint of the umbilical cord that pumped life through the political economy of the region as a whole. The train disaster wasn’t merely an ‘accident’ – it offers a painful and poignant illustration of the systemic, exploitative and racist nature of the South African mining industry in the eras of segregation and later, apartheid,” Van Onselen says.
Sibongile Nkosi, spokesperson for the Mpumalanga Department of of Sport, Culture and Recreation, said on Monday that she would respond to a series of queries from News24 about the monument and commemoration, including questions about historical accuracy and who had won the tender to build the monuments.
The department has, however, not responded to News24. This story will be updated once a response is received.
Read Charles van Onselen’s essay “How arrogant and semi-literate nationalists are soiling our heritage” here.
“When it comes to exercising political patronage and making ministerial appointments the ministry of arts and culture is the president’s trash can, and more especially so during Cabinet reshuffles,” Van Onselen says in the essay.
“Few political careers take off from the launching pad of ‘arts and culture’. More often than not it is the graveyard of political ambition. Being made the minister of arts and culture is a bit like being put in charge of camels in the Saudi government: Somebody has to do it and preferably someone with a past as well as a future in the countryside.
“Arts and culture is where failed or failing Cabinet ministers go to when a president wants to keep them ‘on board’ until such time as they have to go overboard.”